Losing the Waigul Valley

TACTICAL VICTORIES AND STRATEGIC FAILURE

IN NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN. BY ERIK MALMSTROM

 

 

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On November 10, 2007, an ambush in Aranas, a remote village in northeastern Afghanistan where I had spent the majority of my 16-month military deployment, killed six Americans and three Afghans, wounding 18 more. The attack set a new record for American service members killed in Afghanistan in a single year, with nearly two months left until Christmas.  

Nine months later, another attack in the same valley—this time in Wanat, the district capital—killed nine U.S. soldiers, marking the largest single loss of American life in Afghanistan since 2005.

In both instances, the unit hit in the attacks was the one that had replaced mine.

I had worried about its welfare ever since departing. I hoped it would be spared the casualties we had suffered, but I knew that its mission would be even more difficult than ours. I was not optimistic about the situation I had left behind.  

Nevertheless, I was still shocked by what I learned at the funeral of a friend killed in Aranas. His battalion had already lost 14 soldiers—almost double the death toll of its previous yearlong deployment in southern Afghanistan, and in just five months. By the time the guns fell silent in Wanat, the losses of a single company nearly matched those sustained by my entire battalion.

Overwhelmed by these tragedies, I envisioned the valor, courage, and heroism of the fallen soldiers. But I was also angry over the strategic blunders that stranded units like my successors in impossible situations. Violence has spiked in much of Afghanistan and progress is slow or nonexistent. Incoherent, misdirected, and shortsighted coalition efforts are to blame. What makes that truth so difficult to bear, however, is the way this large-scale failure has undercut the rich potential of a strategy my unit sacrificed so dearly to carry out.

FEATURE:
Losing the Waigul Valley By Erik Malmstrom
Photograph by Peter Van Agtmael

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